ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine troops battled Muslim rebels on two fronts Thursday, after about 100 extremists attacked a second city near the southern port where guerrillas have been holding scores of residents hostage in a four-day standoff with government forces.
The latest attack was led by al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf gunmen and other militants, officials said. They planned to set fire to a village and a wharf on the rural outskirts of predominantly Christian Lamitan city on Basilan island. The attack was repulsed by government forces in an hour-long clash that left a government militiaman and an unspecified number of militants dead, and two soldiers wounded, army Col. Carlito Galvez said.
Basilan is a boat ride away from Zamboanga city, where Moro National Liberation Front fighters have been holding more than 100 hostages since Monday, when government troops fought off their attempt to erect a rebel flag at city hall.
The Moro rebels joined the Abu Sayyaf in Thursday's attack. Galvez said that the Abu Sayyaf, which is a violent faction of the Muslim separatist rebellion, was trying to take advantage of the hostage standoff in Zamboanga "to try to improve its influence and mass base support."
Another government militiaman was missing and troops were pursuing the attackers, who were led by wanted Abu Sayyaf commanders Isnilon Hapilon and Puruji Indama, Galvez said.
Thousands of army troops and police had been on full alert this week to thwart plans by the Abu Sayyaf to sow trouble in Basilan as the standoff drags on in Zamboanga, according to Galvez.
Regional Gov. Mujiv Hataman said that authorities had discovered the planned assault in Basilan, allowing them to monitor rebel movements and evacuate residents as early as Wednesday.
In Zamboanga, government troops, backed by armored troop carriers, engaged the rebels in a fierce exchange of gunfire in Santa Catalina village, where the insurgents were holding some of their hostages, igniting a blaze that gutted about 30 houses. Two Huey helicopters hovered as black smoke billowed from the rebel-held coastal community.
The four-day crisis has virtually paralyzed Zamboanga, a lively trading city of nearly a million people, with most flights and ferry services suspended. Communities near the clashes resembled a war zone, with armored troop carriers lining streets, troops massing at a school and snipers taking positions atop buildings. A mosque and its minaret were pockmarked with bullet holes.
More than 15,000 villagers have fled the fighting and took shelter at schools and a grandstand in a seaside sports complex. Troops were under orders to prevent the rebels from straying beyond the communities they seized or getting reinforcements, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said.
The Moro rebels signed a peace deal in 1996, but their faction leader accuses the government of reneging on a promise to develop the impoverished, restive region. The rebel leader, Nur Misuari, isolated himself when he voiced opposition to the ongoing peace talks between the Philippines and the currently-dominant rebel movement, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez, Teresa Cerojano and Hrvoje Hranjski in Manila contributed to this report.